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The Pros and Cons of Being an Expat in Chiang Mai

The first time I came to Chiang Mai in November 2015, I was following a bunch of bloggers who attended TBEX Bangkok with me. I immediately fell in love with the northern capital of Thailand and resolved to make it my winter home base as much as possible. This is now my third time living as an expat in Chiang Mai. It’s not the same as it used to be.

As I’m currently living in Chiang Mai and writing this article from cafes in the city, I’ll refer to it as “here” rather than “there.”

Where Did All the Bloggers Go?

For me, the biggest change in the past three years is the digital nomads who live here. Or rather the lack thereof. When I first came up, dozens of my fellow bloggers were here with me, either living or visiting. The creative geniuses behind Travel Marinade, Teacake Travels, Scarlet Jones Travel, The Blog Abroad and even Nomadic Matt were all to be found in town, sometimes all at the same co-working cafe. As a digital nomad and blogger, I couldn’t have asked for more. If I were sitting in a cafe and had a question about how to do something in my blog, I just had to turn to the person next to me and ask, and they most likely would have the answer. If they didn’t, the person on the other side of me would.

C.A.M.P. at Maya Shopping Center

This time around, the number of bloggers living here is scant, to say the least. None of my friends who were here the last time have remained. A couple new friends have come and gone while I’ve been here, two of which were here on my suggestion to make Chiang Mai their home base. Even the bloggers behind Tieland to Thailand, the top travel blog of the country, moved to Bangkok last year.

Chiang Mai was one of the original digital nomad centers of the world. Cheap prices, good food, warm weather and a fun culture brought in location-independent bloggers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. The city is still full of digital nomads, but of a different breed. Many of the foreigners are here to teach English, or try their luck in the world of drop shipping (import and export businesses). When it comes to travel bloggers, it’s kinda lonely here.

Chiang Mai is Becoming Westernized

One of the draws of Chiang Mai was the slightly more raw and rough feeling of the town. Bangkok is a busy and established city (and incidentally the most visited city in the world with 30 million tourists a year). Chiang Mai, on the other hand, has a fraction of the population with only 130,000 in the city limits and another 1.5 million in the surrounding province.

Yet with the constant influx of digital nomads, expats and (ahem) old men looking for a Thai wife, the city is changing to cater better to foreigners. The number of Western restaurants has increased exponentially. While I often feel the need to balance out some Western food with my Thai food, it’s also disconcerting to see so many McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Pizza Huts, Burger Kings and Starbucks opening up. I’m fine with all the 7-Elevens here, as the Thai 7-Eleven is quite different from its American counterpart, and I would be sad not to have my midnight toasties available.

It’s nice to see a lot of development in the city, yet part of the charm of Chiang Mai is the crude underdevelopment. Some of my favorite restaurants in town make the description “ramshackle” sound well established by comparison. I like the challenge of crossing streets in a city that hardly has any crosswalks, but not many others like the idea of running through four lanes of fast-moving traffic.

The first shopping mall in Chiang Mai, Kad Suan Kaew, opened its doors in 1992! It was revolutionary, bringing a massive range of products, clothing trends and other imports from Bangkok and the rest of the world. In more recent times, several more shopping malls have opened – Airport Plaza, Central Festival, Promenada and the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center. The most recent addition is the One Nimman, an ultra-modern outdoor shopping center which includes a massive conference venue on the top floor, outdoor event courtyard, food court, etc.

One Nimman Mall in Chiang Mai

Prices Are Going Up

Along with all the modern and Western businesses, the cost of living also continues to rise. There are still food trucks and stalls around town selling a plate of Pad Thai for $1 or an iced Thai tea for $0.75. On the other hand, finding a decent hamburger or pizza for less than $5 is a challenge, and many places charge $10 or more for such meals without a second thought.

As much as I love cooking at home, purchasing food at supermarkets is almost out of the question. While living in Edinburgh, I was able to keep my weekly food purchases down to around $25 a week. That’s far less than it would cost in the US. On the other hand, to purchase the same food, item for item, at a store in Chiang Mai costs four or five times as much! A bag of tortillas in the US and UK is $1, while the same bag is $8 in Chiang Mai! A block of cheese here averages about $10, and even an avocado is a whopping $4! Sure, you can buy local food at the outdoor markets for dirt cheap, but sometimes I crave a little bit of Western food, or even some comfort food now and then. Mango sticky rice for $1.50 is good, but sometimes I want a pint of ice cream, and that starts at $5 for the local brands.

Finally a Real Bus System

Not everything in Chiang Mai is bad. While the public transportation is still way behind many other cities and countries, there have been some recent improvements. In my second visit to the country, Uber had arrived and was the best way to get around. A three-mile ride was as little as $1. In October 2018, Grab bought out Uber and now the prices are about three times more expensive, but the system is still safe, reliable and the fastest way to get across town.

Also around October 2018, a new bus system was launched in the city. Modern buses now circle the city on three circuitous routes, servicing such locations as the airport, all the shopping malls, the night markets, the Old Town, the zoo, and the bus station. They leave every half an hour or so at the beginning of their route (whether from the airport, zoo or Central Festival Mall) but can get stuck in the horrible traffic of Chiang Mai. I fear the city will have to be rebuilt before we see bus lanes here. The best part is that one ride is only $0.70, making it the cheapest way to get around town.

New Chiang Mai Bus

The buses augment the already established, local “city buses.” These covered pickup trucks with two benches in the back, called songthaews (“two seats” in Thai), either run on pre-established routes or are roaming and charge locals $0.50 to $1. Unfortunately, the roaming ones are complete scams for tourists. They will happily charge up to $10 for the same ride a local gets for $0.50. You could just jump on the songthaew going along the route you want, but the directions are only written in Thai, so you’ll need a local translator.

Smog and Pollution

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai in October 2015, the temperature was a comfortable 70°F and every few days it would rain. The sky was a beautiful blue and I found the climate wonderful, especially after the sweltering temperatures in Bangkok.

In January 2017, I returned to Chiang Mai to live for another four months. In the beginning, it wasn’t too bad; only a few degrees more than it had been during my first visit. But by April, things had changed significantly. Every day was getting into the 90s. Far worse than the heat was the smoke. All around northern Thailand, the locals burn the crops and jungles throughout the winter for various purposes. By April, before the summer rains start, the smoke is simply unbearable.

This year, the smog was worse than ever, as many locals confirmed, and it started long before April. When I arrived in December, I had a clear view of the Wat Doi Suthep temple high on the mountain. Before February was over, there were several days when the temple was all but invisible, and a couple days when even the mountains, only a couple miles away, were just vague shapes in the smoke. I read that a fire ban was passed at the end of February, but the air quality is already so bad as to be a real health hazard.

Selfie Expat in Chiang Mai

Will I Be Back?

This is the question I’m still trying to answer for myself. For the past couple years, I’ve been saying that Chiang Mai is one of my favorite cities in the world and my preferred winter home base. Due to the above information, that’s not necessarily the case. I do still love Chiang Mai for its wonderful 24-hour cafes, beautiful scenery, a plethora of attractions and low cost of living. I just have to decide if the horrible air quality, increased traffic and lack of my blogger acquaintances overbalances the values.

I know a lot of bloggers are heading further south to places like Bali, Ubud, Kuala Lumpur and even Bangkok. There is also a large group of the more established bloggers who have set up shop in Merida, Mexico and a smaller group is in Sofia, Bulgaria. Perhaps I will join them, or return to Edinburgh where there are several other bloggers. Then again, I’d love to go back on the road backpacking around as I did in 2015. And my ultimate goal is to get a tiny home to travel the world in. I might have to get some seasonal work this summer to get the wherewithal for that. I’m always open to suggestions from everyone.

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Expat in Chiang Mai

 

Further Reading

After being an Expat in Chiang Mai three times, I’ve written quite a few articles on the city. Here are my articles specifically related to living here long-term.

If you’re looking for some attractions to do in Chiang Mai, here are a few more articles.

And if you want to branch out a little bit from Chiang Mai to the other surrounding cities and villages, here are my stories for those places.

Finally here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

The first time I came to Chiang Mai in November 2015, I was following a bunch of bloggers who attended TBEX Bangkok with me. I immediately fell in love with the northern capital of Thailand and resolved to make it my winter home base as much as possible. This is now my third time living as an expat in Chiang Mai. It's not the same as it used to be. As I'm currently living in Chiang Mai and writing this article from cafes in the city, I'll refer to it as "here" rather than "there." Where Did All the Bloggers…

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